Columns/Features / Sports

Nothing But the Best Out West

The NBA is nearing the halfway point in its season and already there is plenty to talk about. Some teams have surprised us, like the Portland Trailblazers; other teams that looked promising have turned out to be massive failures, such as the two teams in New York. One of the biggest stories this season is the domination of the Western Conference over the East. Only four teams in the East are over .500 compared to eight in the West. With the exception of Indiana and Miami, there has been no competition when teams from the two sides have gone head-to-head. So, it’s time to take a look at the teams in the West. While the West has dominated over the East, there are some teams have overall have done really well and some that haven’t. At the halfway point, here’s a grade breakdown for each team in the more successful West.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder, A-

OKC is once again looking like a team that could contend for an NBA championship. Kevin Durant is making a strong case for MVP once again, leading the NBA in points with 29.2 points per game. He is also shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from three point range. His partner in crime on offense, Russell Westbrook, was having one of his best NBA seasons until he suffered another injury, but he will be back this season. Westbrook was giving the Thunder a phenomenal 21.3 points and 7.0 assists per game. If he can return to full health, OKC will be playing late into the playoffs.

 

San Antonio Spurs, A

The team that was seconds away from another NBA championship last season is at it again. The Big Three in San Antonio in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili continue to get older and yet still continue to be great. They lead the Spurs offensively, averaging 14.2, 17.7 and 12.6 points, respectively. The success for the Spurs, however, still comes on the defensive end. San Antonio doesn’t allow opponents to find an offensive groove and continues to rank among the best in scoring defense. Most didn’t think San Antonio would compete with Miami last season, but this team of veterans doesn’t like to lose. They will always be around.

 

Portland Trailblazers, A+

One of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season has been Portland. A team that was at one point topping the West, the Blazers are the top scoring team in the NBA, averaging 108.7 points per game. The scoring starts with LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging an incredible 23.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Complementing Aldridge’s inside game is point guard Damian Lillard, who adds 21.3 points and 5.8 assists per game. Combined with Wesley Matthews on the perimeter, all-around player Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez, who is exceeding expectations, Portland finally has a team that is coming together.

 

L.A. Clippers, B

The Clippers are right where they’re supposed to be, atop the Pacific Division. While the defense needs to improve, Chris Paul continues to show why he’s the best point guard in the NBA, averaging 19.6 points and a league-leading 11.2 assists per game. However, Paul is now out for three to five weeks with a shoulder injury and without its glue, L.A. must show it can still win games. Blake Griffin, who is currently averaging a team-high 22 points per game, will be critical. L.A. has plenty of role players on this team, so if they can play well, the Clippers should be able to manage until Paul’s return.

 

Houston Rockets, B

Houston has dealt with inconsistency this season, losing to bad teams like Utah and Sacramento. Yet, the Rockets could be a great team going further into the season. Of course, the Rockets should be winning games with two of the best players in the game. James Harden is having another fantastic year, having his way with opponents’ defense, averaging 24.4 points per game. In the middle, Dwight Howard has returned to more of the dominant center fans know. Howard is giving the Rockets 17.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Along with Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin this is a team with plenty of firepower.

 

Golden State Warriors, B+

The Warriors aren’t atop the Western Conference right now, but they’re always dangerous and have won eight straight games. They’ve dealt with small injuries along the way to Stephan Curry and Andre Iguodala, but scoring will never be a problem on this team, which features the most dangerous backcourt in the game right now. Curry is averaging 23.3 points per game while Klay Thompson is tallying 19.3 points per contest. David Lee has stepped up too, giving the Warriors 18.9 points per game. Defensively, Golden State has Iguodala and Andrew Bogut to keep opponents in check, so if healthy, they could go far this season.

 

Phoenix Suns, A

Nobody thought Phoenix would be a playoff team. Most, including myself, thought the Suns would be a cellar dweller in the West. We were all wrong. Currently in the seventh seed, Phoenix is in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring, putting up 103.7 points per game. The reason for that can be found in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Bledsoe, the understudy of Chris Paul last season, has spread his wings, averaging 18.0 points and 5.8 assists. Dragic is averaging slightly better numbers, tallying 18.8 points and 5.9 assists. The pair of guards has made Phoenix a playoff team and a huge surprise this season.

 

Dallas Mavericks, B

When your team has Dirk Nowitzki, you always have a good chance of making the playoffs. The veteran forward is not showing signs of age by any means, putting up 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. He’s shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from behind the arc and 92.0 percent from the free throw line. With Monta Ellis also making a big impact, averaging 20.2 points per game, there isn’t one player defenses can focus on. Defense might not be this team’s strength, but Nowitzki is a veteran player, making Dallas a team nobody can overlook.

 

Minnesota Timberwolves, B-

Kevin Love has been a monster on the court this year. Averaging 26.4 points (second-best in the NBA) and 13.5 rebounds per game, Love has been consistent, putting numbers on the board night in and night out. Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic also keep the defense busy, tallying 19.8 and 18.0 points per game, respectively. So the offense is strong in Minnesota. The problem keeping the T-Wolves out of the playoff picture? Defense. The team gives up 102.9 points per game, fourth-highest in the NBA. Yet, the Timberwolves are currently just one spot out of the playoffs, so this is a team not to give up on.

 

Denver Nuggets, C+

There’s one name to know in Denver: Ty Lawson. With Andre Iguodala gone, Lawson knows this is officially his team, and has put up the numbers to prove it, averaging 17.7 points and 8.1 assists per game. His teammates have matched his energy and the team has plenty of threats from behind the arc. Nevertheless, I don’t see this as a team that makes the playoffs. They simply don’t play good enough defense to be a top-eight contender.

 

New Orleans Pelicans, B-

Ryan Anderson has stepped up big for New Orleans this season. The power forward continues to spread the opponents’ defense, shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range. Overall, he’s averaging an impressive 19.8 points per game. The problem for the Pelicans is that last week, Anderson went down with a neck injury and is still undergoing tests in Boston. The Pelicans do have Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, all of which are capable of putting up big numbers, but without Anderson, this team will struggle.

 

Memphis Grizzlies, C-

It seems like the Grizzlies have always been known for their defense. And they still are, holding opponents to 97.5 points per game. Defense will win a lot of ball games, but to win, you also have to be able to score points. Mike Conley has found his stride on the offensive end, giving the Grizzlies a solid 17.3 points per game. Zach Randolph has also done his job for Memphis this season, leading the team with 17.1 points per game. Yet, the Grizzlies are still on the bottom end of the NBA in scoring. This may change when Marc Gasol returns, but the Grizzlies need to find an answer now.

 

L.A. Lakers, B+

The Lakers have to be wondering how they could receive so much bad luck in one season. Many teams have suffered injuries, but none as many as L.A. First, superstar Kobe Bryant returned from his torn Achilles tendon. Six games later, he injured his knee and will be out for extended time. Steve Nash has also only played in six games. He is one of a handful of point guards the Lakers have gone through. L.A. has gone deep into its D-League team with the only recognizable name left on the Lakers being Pau Gasol. With so much uncertainty and so many roster changes, Head Coach Mike D’Antoni requires a lot of credit.

 

Sacramento Kings, D

In a rebuilding year, star DeMarcus Cousins has proved himself a premier center in the NBA, averaging 23.2 points and 11.4 rebounds, but Cousins still has a lot of maturing to do as he currently leads the league in technicals. Isaiah Thomas has also stepped up, adding 19.3 points and 6.2 assists per contest. The recently acquired Rudy Gay has been great thus far, putting up 19.5 points per game. But offense isn’t the problem. Despite Head Coach Michael Malone preaching defense, Sacramento still gives up 104.5 points to its opponent, second-worst in the NBA. The formula for improvement is pretty simple: play defense.

 

Utah Jazz, D+

Compared to most NBA teams, Utah doesn’t have much talent, lacking a huge NBA star. Therefore, the team wasn’t expected to win big. Nevertheless, with the worst record in the West, it’s not possible to give this team a passing grade. In what was supposed to be a developmental year for the Jazz, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have been decent for the Jazz, averaging 16.5 and 13.5 points per game, respectively, but the Jazz need more from Trey Burke. The highly-anticipated rookie that slipped to the ninth pick in the draft has struggled with consistency despite averaging 13.3 points and 5.2 assists. Right now, the Jazz would have a good shot in the lottery, which looks to have several franchise-changing players.

 

A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 6th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Art by Mingchen Shen of the Daily Nexus.

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